Diane Varsi

Diane Varsi

in Peyton Place (1957)
Born Diane Marie Antonia Varsi
(1938-02-23)February 23, 1938
San Mateo, California, U.S.
Died November 19, 1992(1992-11-19) (aged 54)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Respiratory failure and Lyme disease
Resting place Mount Tamalpais Cemetery
Alma mater Bennington College
Years active 1957-1977
Spouse(s) James Dickson (m. 1955; div. 1958)
Russell Parker (m. 1966; div. 1970)
Michael Hausman (m. 1961–92)
Children 2

"The very thing that led me to want to act was very mysterious, even to me. I thought there was a whole communal feeling in film. That the idea of film was to be a service of humanity, a means of communication. But the spirit was power."

Varsi on her acting motives and the film industry.[1]

Diane Marie Antonia Varsi (February 23, 1938 November 19, 1992) was an American film actress best known for her performances in Peyton Place her film debut, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award and the cult film Wild in the Streets. She left Hollywood in order to pursue personal and artistic aims, notably at Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied poetry with poet and translator Ben Belitt, among others.

Early life

Varsi was born in San Mateo, California, a suburb of San Francisco, the daughter of Beatrice (née DeMerchant) and Russell Varsi.[2]Varsi unsuccessfully tried to become a model and a restaurant hostess in her teen years.[3] While in high school, she was called an "oddball" by her classmates.[3] She often played truant from school to visit San Francisco and was therefore labeled a "rebel".[3] She dropped out of school in her junior year at age 15, failing in all studies and saying: "I was bored. I didn't like the social sides - the cliques."[4][5] Around the same time, she married an 18-year-old man. Their marriage was annulled before her son, Shawn, was born.[5]

She joined the San Francisco ballet in the 1950s and initially planned to become a folk singer.[3] She later hitchhiked to Los Angeles with a friend.[3]

Peyton Place

Despite having only experience as an actress in a stage production of Gigi, she made her screen debut at age 18 as Allison MacKenzie in Peyton Place (1957), receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance. The following year, Varsi shared the Golden Globe Award for New Star Of The Year - Actress with Sandra Dee and Carolyn Jones. Several famous actresses were tested for the main role in the big-budget film, until the then-unknown Varsi was cast in May 1957.[6] She was discovered by producer Buddy Adler, who immediately put her under contract of 20th Century Fox.[6]


By the time she was cast, Varsi already had an agent and had been searching for film roles for a long while, without any luck.[6] She made rounds at several studios, but according to the actress, they all thought she was suitable for character parts only.[3] She was even dropped by her agent in 1956, because he saw no future in her career.[6]

Even before Peyton Place was released, Adler cast Varsi opposite Don Murray in the western From Hell to Texas (1958). She appeared in the films Ten North Frederick (1958) and Compulsion (1959). While filming Ten North Frederick, Varsi suffered a nervous breakdown, collapsed and was hospitalized.[4] She later said: "I'm still trying to find myself. It's still hard for me to separate illusion from reality... I don't know whether acting is the form of creativity best for me."[1]

Varsi rejected the role of Meg in the comedy film Holiday for Lovers in January 1959.[7] On March 18, 1959, she suddenly left Hollywood, abandoning her contract. She commented on this by saying: "I'm running away from destruction."[1] She refused to reveal her motives for leaving the industry, explaining it concerned other people as well.[8] However, a week after leaving she stated: "Hollywood is too impressed with superficial cheapness."[9] Nevertheless, her contract with Fox did not expire until 1965.[1] Her sudden walkout was for a long time rumoured to be a publicity stunt to promote the sequel to Peyton Place, Return to Peyton Place (1961), to which Varsi was a long time attached.[10]

By walking out of her contract, Varsi's participation or consideration to several films were cancelled, including a starring role in The Best of Everything (1959).[11] After leaving Hollywood, Varsi played in several small plays in San Francisco.[8] At some point thereafter, she made her way to New York long enough to successfully audition for the Actors Studio, which she would attend at least briefly in 1965.[12] As a result of being released from her contract, Varsi returned to film acting in the late 1960s, but by this time she was no longer being offered major film roles. She called the films she made in this period "cheap films of little merit".[1] She furthermore said that although producers were curious, they would not hire her.[1] Her later films include Johnny Got His Gun in 1971, a film which Varsi described as her favorite, and a 1972 ABC-TV "Movie of the Week", titled The People. Of Johnny Got His Gun, the actress said: "This is the kind of thing I always wanted to do. It comes very late to me. It's been a long time to wait."[1] She was nervous to play the role, saying: "I felt too inadequate to do [Johnny Got His Gun]. It's so intense, the responsibility."[1]

Personal life

While in Hollywood, Varsi was known for being unglamorous, never wearing any make-up or fancy clothes.[4] Furthermore, she avoided the Hollywood parties and was quoted as saying: "I'd rather meet Aldous Huxley than Clark Gable."[4] Other actors at Fox recalled her as "a frightened, birdlike girl who was bewildered by her sudden success" and as "disillusioned by the way certain studio officials treated her".[8] Russ Tamblyn, her co-star in Peyton Place, stated they dated following the film's release.[13]

From November 26, 1956, to August 29, 1958, Varsi was married to James Dickson, whom she made her manager while working as an actress.[5] She was married to Michael Hausman on May 21, 1961; they had a daughter, Willo.

In 1968, while working on the set of Wild in the Streets, Varsi suffered extreme trauma to her cervical spine, which led to years of misdiagnosed pain. In 1977, she contracted Lyme disease and lived for five years with undiagnosed and unremitting meningitis which brought her close to death several times. The Lyme disease, combined with her neck injury, which had resulted from numerous surgeries, was not diagnosed until 1989.


On November 19, 1992, Varsi died from respiratory failure at the age of 54 in Los Angeles. At the time of her death, she also had Lyme disease.[14] She is buried in Mount Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael, California.


Year Film Role Notes
1957 Peyton Place Allison MacKenzie
1958 Ten North Frederick Ann Chapin
From Hell to Texas Juanita Bradley Alternative title: Man Hunt
1959 Compulsion Ruth Evans
1967 Sweet Love, Bitter Della Alternative titles: Black Love, White Love
It Won't Rub Off, Baby!
Roseanna Mary Jane
1968 Wild in the Streets Sally LeRoy
Killers Three Carol Warder
1970 Bloody Mama Mona Gibson
1971 Johnny Got His Gun Fourth Nurse
1972 The People Valancy Carmody Television movie
1977 I Never Promised You a Rose Garden Sylvia
Year Title Role Notes
1959 Playhouse 90 Lurene Dawson 1 episode
1966 Dr. Kildare 2 episodes
1969 My Friend Tony 1 episode
1971 Cannon Mrs. Hill 1 episode

Awards and nominations

Year Award Result Category Film or series
1958 Academy Award Nominated Best Actress in a Supporting Role Peyton Place
Golden Globe Award Most Promising Newcomer - Female
Laurel Awards Nominated Top New Female Personality
Top Female Supporting Performance Peyton Place


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 San Antonio Light - January 3, 1971, San Antonio, Texas. p.46: Diane Varsi is on the way back
  2. Varsi Marriage Certificate accessed 1-2-2016
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 El Paso Herald-Post - December 31, 1957, El Paso, Texas. p.16
  4. 1 2 3 4 Evening Standard - August 5, 1958, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. p.2: Diane Varsi Holds Hollywood's 'Miss Beat Generation' Title
  5. 1 2 3 Corpus Christi Caller-Times - April 19, 1959, Corpus Christi, Texas. p.97: Diane Varsi: Runaway Star
  6. 1 2 3 4 Altoona Mirror - May 29, 1957, Altoona, Pennsylvania. p.4
  7. "Notes for Holiday for Lovers (1959)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2010-02-18.
  8. 1 2 3 The Daily Mail - February 21, 1966, Hagerstown, Maryland. p.18: Diane Varsi Reappears and Wants to Return to Acting
  9. The Newport Daily News - March 26, 1959, Newport, Rhode Island. p.21: Diane Varsi Quits Acting Due to Its Superficial Cheapness
  10. "She Quit For A New Life Of Faith" by John Hyams, Winnipeg Free Press, April 8, 1961, p. 72
  11. "Notes for The Best of Everything (1959)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2010-02-18.
  12. Diane Varsi at the University of Wisconsin's Actors Studio audio collection
  13. Lawton Constitution - March 26, 1959, Lawton, Oklahoma. p.26: Tamblyn Thinks Diane Varsi Will Never Go Back To Films
  14. "Diane Varsi, 54, Dies; Former Film Actress". The New York Times. 1992-12-24. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
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